Chinese satellites to help spy on bushfires

Chinese satellites to help spy on bushfires

4 November 2009

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Australia/China — Australian and Chinese scientists have teamed up to crank up the use of satellites for monitoring natural disasters including floods and bushfires.

The Australian team, led by University of NSW remote sensing expert Linlin Ge, predicts the collaboration will provide high-resolution satellite images of fires in near-real time.

“For disaster reduction, the more satellites we can access the better,” Dr Ge said from Shanghai.

He said the images would add to ground and aerial-based observations of fire movement, and complement the more limited satellite data presently available from two satellites operated by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That’s critical to responding to fires and managing their consequences, said Warwick Watkins, chief executive of the NSW Land and Property Management Authority, which is part of the collaboration.

He said: “No one set of technologies is going to solve everyone’s problems.”

Under agreements signed last October in Beijing, Australian experts will have access to data from a dedicated disaster satellite network called the Huang Jing constellation. Disaster data will be available at no charge.

Signatories include UNSW, the LPMA, the Co-operative Research Centre for Spatial Information, three agencies within the China Earthquake Administration and China’s National Research Centre for the State Administration of Work Safety. The satellites are managed by the Chinese ministries of Civil Affairs and Environmental Protection, along with the Chinese National Space Agency.

China launched the first two of eight satellites in the network last year and a third is scheduled for launch in 2010. They have a polar orbit, so they pass over Australia on their north-south path, providing complete global data every two days.

In addition to optical images, the satellites, which orbit at an altitude of about 650km, have radar sensors that see through cloud, smoke, and rain.

Chinese scientists have developed systems for downloading and processing optical data within 10 minutes of a satellite’s overpass, while Dr Ge’s group has complementary expertise in radar data. “We’re really looking forward to seeing what the Chinese platforms can provide,” said fire mapping and remote sensing expert Mark Garvey, head of geographic information services with Victoria’s Country Fire Authority.

According to Mr Garvey, the additional data should cut the number of informational “black holes” disaster managers face when mapping the perimeters of vast, remote, fast-moving bush fires.

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